The Hanging of Walter Martyn, the Plumpton Wood Murderer

The first local murder case that resulted in a hanging was that of Birtle man John Diggle in 1826. The second took place in 1911, when local man Walter Martyn was sent to the Strangeways gallows.

Martyn, 25 years old, was lodging at the Adelaide Street family home of his girlfriend Edith Griffiths, a cotton-waste operative aged 23. One evening in September 1911 they set off together for a walk to Plumpton Wood. A couple of hours later Martyn entered the Brown Cow pub alone and had a quiet drink with a friend there. Then he headed up to the Black Bull - where he worked - for another drink. The landlord there quickly noticed something very strange about the demeanour of this otherwise quiet, hard-working man. Martyn eventually told him that Edith was lying dead in the woods.

Martyn was escorted to the police station by a constable who, after questioning him, headed down to Plumpton Wood where he found the body of Edith lying near the River Roch. This was near the spot where two young boys had drowned a couple of years earlier. A double-knotted handkerchief was tied so tightly around Edith’s neck that it had caused wounds.

Edith was buried in Heywood Cemetery a few days later, with thousands of locals reportedly attending the funeral and lining the route to the cemetery. Thousands of people had also visited the murder scene during the weekend after her death. It was around this time that Martyn’s father, John, also died after a long bout of ill-health.

Plumpton Wood, Heywood (Michael Cain).

Plumpton Wood, 1890s.

Apart from his confession, scraps of evidence around the area tied Martyn to the murder. The details of what really happened in Plumpton Wood that night remain uncertain because he went on to tell three different versions of events. He initially claimed that Edith had slipped away from him while he was in a shop, and he later found her in the woods with another man whom he could not identify. This man punched Martyn before running away, and after being ‘unable to remember what happened next’, Martyn found himself looking down at the already-dead body of Edith.

He them made another statement while being held at the police station, claiming that they had argued after he told her he was thinking of leaving his job at the Black Bull to work in Prestwich. Edith, who was quick-tempered and had previously been engaged to another man (with whom she had a child), had allegedly accused him of not wanting to be with her and then told him that she ‘didn’t care’ and had ‘found another chap’. Martyn lost his temper and grabbed her throat, causing her death. He said he then dragged her body to the Roch and tied the handkerchief around her neck to make it look like a suicide.

Martyn faced trial at the Manchester Assizes in November. He changed his story again, this time claiming that they had gone to the woods to have sex, but Edith became very agitated, ‘laughing and crying together’, and accused him of seeing another woman, which made him so upset he grabbed her throat ‘to frighten her’ but without the intention of killing her.

During the trial it also emerged (via his doctor) that Martyn was ‘mentally dull and had spells of morbid depression and a villainous temper’, and two years earlier was suspected of attempting suicide by taking poison.

There was a good measure of doubt over whether or not the case was murder or manslaughter, and although the jury eventually found Martyn guilty they ‘recommended him to mercy’, meaning that they believed he did not deserve to hang for his crime. As he heard the verdict, Martyn remained silent and stared at the ceiling, apparently showing little interest in the proceedings, much as he had done throughout much of the trial.

There was also a great deal of sympathy for Martyn back in Heywood, where around 2,500 people signed a petition calling for a reprieve on the grounds that he was mentally ill and had been provoked. A public meeting in his support was held at the United Methodist School on Bethel Street and was attended by local MP Mr H.T. Cawley. It was all to no avail, and Martyn was scheduled to hang at Strangeways Prison on Tuesday 12 December 1911.

Strangeways Prison.

He was to be hanged alongside another man, John Tarkenter of Heyside, and their executioner was Rochdale man John Ellis.

Martyn was extremely morose during his time in the condemned cell and spent much time standing motionless, staring miserably at the door. Ellis, who had to surreptitiously spy on condemned prisoners in order to assess the strength of their neck, allowing him to gauge the length of the ‘drop’ required to break their necks, had to spend four hours outside the cell door waiting for Martyn to turn around before he saw the back of his neck.

The hangings took place at 8 a.m. on a damp and miserable morning. The men were first moved to another cell closer to the scaffold, where Ellis tied their arms behind their backs with leather straps. This was a precaution against any disruptions. Martyn was apparently even more downcast than he had been previously and moved about ‘like a man in a dream’. Two chaplains read sentences from the burial service as the prisoners were led to the scaffold. Ellis took great care in making this final moments as short as possible, to reduce the excruciating suffering for all concerned, and within the space of a minute he had placed the white hoods over the prisoner’s heads, the nooses around their necks, and they were ‘launched into eternity’.

In later years, John Ellis (left) worked in theatrical
productions about hangings.

Walter Martyn was subsequently buried in the prison cemetery in a grave marked ‘WM 1911’. In the 1990s, during the rebuilding programme that followed the Strangeways riots, his remains were exhumed and removed to the Blackley Crematorium.

He and John Diggle were, as far as I know, the only people from around the Heywood area to be judicially executed.

Sources 
  • Martin Baggoley, Strangeways: A Century of Hangings in Manchester, Barnsley, Wharncliffe Books, 2006. 
  • John Ellis, Diary of a Hangman, Glasgow, Forum Press, 2000. 
  • John Gwilliam, ‘Murder in the Woods’, Heywood Living Memories, #30, Winter 1997.

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